Heavy vs. Light Infantry (and what the hell is a ‘Dragoon’ anyway?)


Standing at the position of ‘parade rest’ at the 30th Adjutant General Reception Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia, my eyes flitted left and right to steal glances of the plaques bolted to the walls. They were there for me to read, weren’t they? Each plaque had a unit name and patch on it and a short snippet about them.

82nd Airborne Division (Light)

25th Infantry Division (Light)

3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized)

It was supposed to be motivating, I thought. Here are all the different places I could go after I finish my infantry training. I was 19, and didn’t know shit about shit.

It was clear from the very beginning that the “light” units were the cool units to go to. Light, I assumed, was a reference to the combat load that individual soldiers carried. A paratrooper in the 82nd could fight better because he carried less gear. He could march further and faster and fight better. That made sense.

I didn’t see any units designated “medium” or “heavy,” though I assumed that the units designated “mechanized” must fill that role. The school that produces our MOS, though, does not differentiate between infantrymen – you are either an 11B or an 11C, infantryman or indirect fire infantryman (mortars), respectively. No one is pre-designated as a “light” or “heavy” infantryman.

About half a year later, there I was, the newest Private in an Airborne Reconnaissance platoon – the Scouts. “This will be great,” I thought, “I will be the lightest of the light because I have to move further and faster than anyone in the battalion.”

I wasn’t a big fan of rucking. When I joined the Army I weighed 140 pounds. Foot marching was the event that instilled the most fear into me as a new soldier.

When I got to Scouts, they needed a new RTO, and since I had a new pack of map markers sitting on a table in my barracks room, my squad leader decided that was reason enough to make me the new RTO. Humping the radio adds a significant amount of weight to your load.

Fast forward to our first field exercise shortly thereafter. Being “light” infantry didn’t feel so light anymore. At infantry school we were issued medium-sized rucksacks. Here at Fort Bragg we got large. The more space they give you, the more stuff you pack into that space.

My rucksack hung on my back, fat and bursting at the seams with gear. None of this made any sense, I thought. How am I supposed to move swiftly with all this gear loading me down?

Over time, the whole idea of being “light” infantry became a joke. We’d get the packing list for a foot march or an FTX and someone would inevitably make a crack about the whole thing. “Light infantry my ass.”

So how is being an infantryman in a “light” infantry unit any different from infantry in a “non-light” unit? Or stated another way, can you really have light infantry without having medium or heavy infantry?

That was all a really convoluted story to get to my point, that the whole idea of “light” infantry as something different from all the other infantry we have is a concept that is old and remains today out of legacy. The reality is, most infantry units train pretty similarly. Obviously each unit has its quirks – airborne, mechanized, Stryker, etc. But the infantrymen in those units all came from the same place and do the same training – OSUT at Fort Benning – and for the most part, rotate around the military throughout their careers.

A long time ago, those designations really did mean something. “Light” infantry was just that – lightly armed infantry that moved ahead of the “heavy” infantry wearing more armor and carrying heavier weapons. Add horses to the mix and you get “light cavalry” also known as “dragoons.” Then you also have “heavy cavalry” which is just heavily armed cavalrymen.

Using the “light/heavy” designations doesn’t really work that well in the modern Army. The case could be made that Stryker and Mechanized units are “heavy.” The Stryker is an infantry “carrier” meaning its role is to transport infantrymen to the battle, but not necessarily to “fight,” making it more akin to “light cavalry.” Maybe the Bradley is a legitimate “heavy” infantry platform.

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